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The Oprichnina of Ivan IV
Part 1: The Creation of the Oprichnina

More of this Feature
2: Oprichniks and Terror
3: End of the Oprichnina

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16th Century Account
Ivan IV: Reformer or Tyrant?

Ivan IV's oprichnina is frequently portrayed as some sort of hell, a time of mass torture and death overseen by sinister black-robed monks, who obeyed their insane Tsar and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The reality is somewhat different, and although the events that created, and eventually ended, the oprichnina are well known, the underlying motives and causes are still unclear.

The Creation of the Oprichnina

In the final months of 1564 Tsar Ivan IV announced an intention to abdicate; he promptly left Moscow with much of his treasure and only a few trusted retainers. They went to Alekandrovsk, a small, but fortified, town to the north where Ivan isolated himself. His only contact with Moscow was through two letters: the first attacking the boyars and the church, and a second reassuring the people of Muscovy that he still cared for them. Ivan may not have been overly popular with the ruling classes - numerous rebellions had been plotted - but without him a struggle for power was inevitable, and a civil war probable. Ivan was asked - some might say begged - to return, but the Tsar made several clear demands: he wanted to create an oprichnina, a territory within Muscovy governed solely and absolutely by him. He also wanted the power to deal with traitors as he wished. Under pressure from the church and the people, the Council of Boyars agreed.

Ivan returned and divided the country into two: the oprichnina and the zemschina. The former was to be his private domain, constructed from any land and property he wished and run by his own administration, the oprichniki. Estimates vary, but between one third and one half of Muscovy became oprichnina. Situated mainly in the north, this land was a piecemeal selection of wealthy and important areas, ranging from whole towns, of which the oprichnina included about twenty, to individual buildings. Moscow was carved up street by street, and sometimes building by building. Existing landowners were often evicted, and their fates varied from resettlement to execution. The rest of Muscovy became the zemschina, which continued to operate under the existing governmental and legal institutions, with a puppet Grand Prince in charge.

Some narratives portray Ivan's flight and threat to abdicate as a fit of pique, or a form of madness stemming from his wife's death in 1560. It is more likely that these actions were a shrewd political trick, albeit tinged with paranoia, designed to give Ivan the bargaining power he needed to rule absolutely. By using his two letters to attack the leading boyars and churchman while also praising the populace, the Tsar had placed great pressure on his would-be opponents, who now faced the possibility of losing public support. This gave Ivan leverage, which he used to create a whole new realm of government. If Ivan had been acting simply out of madness, he was brilliantly opportunistic.

The actual creation of the oprichnina has been viewed in many ways: an isolated kingdom where Ivan could rule by fear, a concerted effort to destroy the Boyars and seize their wealth, or even as an experiment in governing. In practice, the creation of this realm gave Ivan the chance to solidify his power. By seizing strategic and wealthy land the Tsar could employ his own army and bureaucracy, while reducing the strength of his boyar opponents. Loyal members of the lower classes could be promoted, rewarded with new oprichnina land, and given the task of working against traitors. Ivan was able to tax the zemschina and overrule its institutions, while the oprichniki could travel through the whole of the country at will.

But did Ivan intend this? During the 1550's and early 1560's the Tsar's power had come under attack from boyar plots, failure in the Livonian war, and his own temperament. Ivan had fallen ill in 1553 and ordered the ruling boyars to swear oaths of loyalty to his baby son, Dimitrii; several refused, favouring Prince Vladimir Staritsky instead. When the Tsarina died in 1560 Ivan suspected poison, and two of the Tsar's previously loyal advisors were subjected to a rigged trial and sent away to their deaths. This situation began to spiral, and as Ivan was growing to hate the boyars, so his allies were growing concerned with him. Some began to defect, culminating in 1564 when Prince Andery Kurbsky, one of the Tsar's leading military commanders, fled to Poland.

Clearly, these events could be interpreted as either contributing to vengeful and paranoid destruction, or indicating a need for political manipulation. However, when Ivan came to the throne in 1547, after a chaotic and boyar led regency, the Tsar immediately introduced reforms aimed at reorganising the country, to strengthen both the military, and his own power. The oprichnina could well have been a rather extreme extension of this policy.

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Citation And Footnotes:

Title: The Oprichnina of Ivan IV
Author: Robert Wilde
Date: 2001

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